One cannot keep abreast of the news nowadays without coming across a hit piece on higher education and college students. Mainstream media outlets routinely bemoan the alleged widespread suppression of debate and discussion and the prioritization of feelings over facts on college campuses. The right wing, as always, has been at the forefront of the assault on higher education, depicting universities as liberal indoctrination centers populated by coddled politically correct liberal arts majors intent on suppressing free speech and silencing the right. Indeed, the majority of Republican voters now view universities as harmful to the country. But is this onslaught rooted in sincere concern for free speech or is there an ulterior motive?
As a recent graduate of a public university, I found myself puzzled by the negative characterization of universities, which was completely at odds with my college experience. On my left-leaning campus, there was no PC police, no liberal indoctrination centers and no safe spaces or trigger warnings (I actually learned these terms from the media). There were simply students pursuing their degrees. When I went to the tech center or library, the conversations around me typically centered on math and science. In fact, the two most popular majors are business administration and nursing. It’s almost as if people attend college to study and prepare for a good career.
In the classroom, the professors encouraged students to ask questions and provide comments. Most classes were discussion-oriented, and for the most part, discussions were civil and respectful. Respectful conversations only went south on a couple of occasions when conservative students made derogatory comments about certain demographics and insulted and attacked both students and professors who expressed opposing viewpoints. The professors, many of whom were adjuncts, rarely pushed back, and the other students remained quiet. Not only were conservative students not silenced but their insults and bigotry often went unchallenged and professors and students would go to great lengths to accommodate them. The day after the presidential election, one student, a queer black woman whose mother is undocumented, tearfully told a pro-Trump student that she was trying to understand him and his views. I would be hard-pressed to find a Trump supporter who was trying to understand the views of the left.
Right-wing viewpoints could be heard loud and clear around campus. Every day, a preacher stood in the middle of campus and loudly proselytized his views. And after the election season, a contingent of Trump supporters would regularly congregate on a popular street corner and hold up signs that read, “Homos, Muslims and Jews: Repent or Burn in Hell.” (When other students held up their own signs that promoted tolerance and equality, the police showed up to “monitor the situation”). On another occasion, a Zionist student aggressively approached and antagonized a group of female Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) members, hurling insults and slurs left and right. He succeeded in provoking a male acquaintance of the group members to slap him across the face and immediately bolted to the media, posing as a victim of a brutal anti-Semitic hate crime and calling on the university to ban SJP. The media unquestionably reported his version of the incident, and the university released a statement condemning anti-Semitic violence.
Contrary to the narrative that universities are hostile to free speech and conservatives, it is conservatives who are hostile to free speech and progressives and have the backing of both the corporate media and law enforcement. And progressive professors have found themselves under threat. A few years ago, a University of Illinois professor was fired after he criticized the 2014 Israeli massacre of Gaza. More recently, a professor was fired after she had the gall to suggest that Americans should follow the laws of the land they are on. Another professor was censured for mocking the myth of “white genocide.” And at my university, a popular African-American professor, and a noted critic of capitalism and empire, was fired after he opposed the nomination of a white woman to the chair of the African-American studies department.
As a recent college graduate, I can attest to the importance of higher education. My education introduced me to new ideas, new people and new cultures. It taught me to think critically about the world around me and question dominant ideologies and beliefs. My mind was liberated and my consciousness was raised. Herein lies the true motive behind the assault on higher education. The gravest threat to the right-wing elite is independent thought. They are terrified of a populace that questions the virtue of capitalism, the genius of the Founding Fathers, the exceptionalism of the United States and the rightness of Christianity. In short, they are terrified of a populace that challenges their power. And throughout history, the most formidable challenges to their power have been mounted on college campuses. Universities have long challenged the establishment by spearheading powerful social movements, including the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement or, more recently, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement (which is currently at risk of criminalization by Congress).
Higher education critics claim that universities muzzle free speech and debate, when, in reality, it is precisely because universities foster free speech and debate that they are being smeared and muzzled. The smear campaign against higher education thus flips reality on its head. Instances that suit the narrative are cherry-picked, overblown and generalized to the entire college population. The goal is three-fold: discredit university dissent, dissuade the masses from attending college and justify education cuts and ultimate privatization. Indeed, amid the Evergreen protests, a Republican representative called for the privatization of the university. The elite envision a public that is free of educated thinkers and populated solely by ignorant, obedient laborers who can be easily manipulated to serve their interests. Education is their only obstacle.
Progressives, leftists, free thinkers and proponents of free speech must retaliate against this Orwellian assault on higher education and expose its true motives. We must use our voices to counter media narratives and emphasize the significance of higher education. We must not only fight against the creeping privatization of education but fight for fully funded public schools and universities to enable everyone, regardless of socioeconomic background or political beliefs, to receive a world-class education and pursue their hopes and dreams.
The United States has some of the most renowned and prestigious universities in the world, and I am proud to have attended one. Hopefully we can reclaim our universities as a source of national pride rather than shame and ridicule.